Tempting Fates

Part 7

Xena went up to the railing amidships as the small boat from the shore pulled up to them. It was a rough and ready work boat, it’s bottom festooned with a layer of nets that indicated it’s general use was fishing. The four men rowing were big, and burly, and had weathered faces, and one reached up to grab the rope tossed to him from the deck to keep them close.

Besan leaned over the rail. “Ho there.” He said, in a loud, but conversational tone. “What’s the news from Tieria?”

One of the men standing, the one nearest the hull lifted a hand and gave it a shake. “Ho, Besan. Thought that was your colors sailing in.”  He laid his hand on the hull. “Wanted to warn you off, got some trouble in the town.”

Gabrielle cleared her throat and looked away, muffling a smile, while Xena leaned her elbows on the rail and listened, head cocked slightly to one side.

“What kind of trouble?” Besan asked. “We’ve had some ourselves.”

The man nodded. “Got a group of rabble rousers moved in from inland, taken up at Merci’s inn. We were hoping they’d move on, but so far not, and winter’s coming in.  We haven’t had any ships port, but maybe they’ll want to jump on yours if you put in.”

Besans sniffed thoughtfully and then he turned his head to look at Xena who was a body length away from him on the rail. “What do ya think, lady?”

Xena glanced up across the water at the town, then she looked back at Besans. “I think we should take our chances.” She said. “I’d rather that then run out of water.”

Besans didn’t hesitate a moment. “As the lady says.” He called down cheerfully. “We’ll put in, Ranny. I’ve got some stores to barter with, if you can use it.”

Ranny, who was tall, and gangly, and had thinning red hair, gave him a brisk nod in return. “Glad to hear it, and we’ll be happy to trade you we have plenty of barrels ripe for the filling.”  He turned to look at the two men with him who were nodding in some visible relief. “Lets make the dock ready then, back we go.”

The rowers didn’t waste any time in turning the boat and starting it off back in the direction of the town dock, and as they did, the three men sat down along the gunwale, two on one side and the third on the other and leaned forward, talking and nodding.

“Keep on course!” Besans turned and called behind them. “Had a bit of trouble but should be no problem for us.” He chuckled and pushed away from the rail. “Likely some boys kicked out of their homesteads for being lazy bastards.”

“Nice of them to warn you though.” Gabrielle commented. “I’m glad at least we know something’s up there rather than find out the hard way.”

Ranny’s a cousin.” Besans said. “A landie from his shorts up, but a good man.”  He strode off towards the steering bridge, ducking under a line being hauled.  “Bring the mainsail to half!”

Xena and Gabrielle strolled over and climbed up the steps to the forecastle, the brisk breeze fluttering their cloaks from behind as they came to stand on the front of the bow, examining the approaching dock and town as the ship made it’s slow way inward.

Behind them the sails were being furled and made fast and the sounds of the oars became louder as the coastline approached, pulling them closer and closer to the towering cliffs as the spray from the waves came occasionally up high enough to dust them with it’s chill.

The town was built into a sloping valley that extended in steppes down to a rocky waterfront and the long wooden dock built out into the water.  There was not much room to bring a ship in, not of the size of theirs, but a number of fishing vessels could dock and that seemed to be primary use of the harbor.

All of the boats were apparently out fishing because they had sole use of the pier and already there were three or four men in three quarter leggings and heavy boots and heavy shirts standing by to help them tie up next to the wide loading dock that Besans had promised.

Past that, Gabrielle noted, she could see the typical structure of the town, the stone and dirt paths leading up from the harbor, stone housings with heavy thatched roofs scattered up the slope, the wind brought the erratic spate of chicken cackling and a farther off low of a cow.

They went below into the hold and Gabrielle went over to their stored bags and fished out a supple leather belt, along with the knife that went with it, and fastened it around her while Xena started to tack up the horses.  “They’ll be glad to stretch their legs, huh?”

“Absolutely.” Xena gave Tanto a pat on the cheek. “Though this hasn’t been too bad for them.” She acknowledged, reviewing the stabling. “I think they’d rather be on deck, but with my luck this one’d jump overboard.”

Gabrielle chuckled.  She refastened her bags and stood up, retrieving her staff from the corner it was stashed in as they both felt the ship slow, and the clash and rattle of the oars being withdrawn.  The storing door, on the far end of the deck was swung open and the lower level was suddenly awash with a stiff, fresh salt breeze and sunlight.

Tanto’s ears were cocked all the way forward and he shoved against Xena’s back, extending his head out over the ropes defining the stall he was in and sniffing the air.

Through the open doors they could hear the yells of the sailors, and the responses from the dock and with a slow motion bump and rattle the ship came up against the dock and they rocked back and forth, Gabrielle quickly putting a hand on one of the ropes to keep from falling over.

Both horses shifted in mild alarm, but Xena had a firm grip on both bridles as she stood between them with legs braced.   They rocked back and forth a few more times then the ship’s motion settled and they could hear the sounds of the ropes being tightened, the rub and creak floating in on the breeze.

Gabrielle moved forward and unlooped the front ropes, then stood back as Xena led the horses out and they walked across the deck, now starting to fill with sailors they had to dodge and came to the ramp up to the upper deck.

The cliffs were towering over them as they emerged, the sounds of the town now much louder and as they walked out onto the deck and the horses’s shod hooves sounded on it the dock workers on shore were lifting up a gangway and fastening it in place.

Gabrielle took a deep breath of the air and circled the horses, coming to the other side of Spot’s head and taking over the hold of the bridle from Xena as they waited for the ship to be secured.   She could see past the railing and saw the crowd of idle onlookers gathering, the horses getting some attention.

Tanto tossed his head and snorted, shaking his dark, thick mane when Xena merely tightened her grip on him. “Yeah, yeah. Wait your turn, buddy.” She said, as the men from the small boat now walked up the gangway to parley with the waiting  Besans and Marco.

The sailors were also roaming the decks, securing lines and looking over the rail, obviously glad to be offered a chance to get off as much as the horses were.  

There were some wagons pulling up now at the edge of the pier with water barrels tied down in the back, and already Marcos was rubbing his hands in anticipation, nodding rapidly as the man Ranny spoke as they stood with their heads bent together.

Then, expectedly, the men from the town looked up and looked over at them.  Gabrielle watched them closely, focusing her eyes past them and taking in the body posture and the facial reactions as the ship captain explained their presence.

This could go either way, but after a moment she relaxed because the town men merely nodded with definite interest, but not the eyes widened jerking body reaction that sometimes still did greet Xena’s somewhat checkered past.

Besans waved them forward and they led the horses across the deck to the now firmly laid down gangway, its far end sloping down to the dock, it’s ridged surface wide enough to lead the animals down safely.  “Well now, ladies.  This is Ranny, he’s the reeve of the town and the harbormaster.” He announced. “And here we have Xena, and Gabrielle, who come from the eastern border with Thrace.”

Ranny gave them a cheerful grin. “Welcome, ladies. Pleasure to meet you.” He said. “We have some fallow fields up the slope if you’d like to give these beauties some exercise.”

“We would.” Xena replied. “Thanks for the offer.”

And that was it. The reeve turned and moved out of the way, and walked down the gangway with Besans and Marcos behind him.

“Okay.” Gabrielle stepped to one side and drew Spot with her. “Lets get this party started.” She fastened her staff into it’s holders along Spot’s side as Xena merely shook her head and chortled, leading Tanto ahead of her to the edge of the gangway.

They made their way to the dock and along the wooden pier until they reached the edge of the shore, which now had more onlookers leaning against the seawall, looking with interest at the newcomers.  Xena paused at the bottom of the path up the slope and mounted, pushing her cloak back out of the way as Tanto danced along the packed dirt.

Gabrielle joined her and they walked the animals up the winding pathway, moving out of the way several times to make way for carts being trundled downward, some pulled by donkeys, some pulled just by men, all of whom paused to regard the horses and their riders.

As they got further up the slope there were trees planted on either side, and Gabrielle peered at one of them as they moved past it. “Lemons.” She said with interest. “You said we were about as far south as Athens.”

“I did.” Xena agreed, her eyes sweeping around looking past the trees at the small houses, each with a short, stone wall built around it made from sections of rock, split flat, piled on top of each other. There was a layer of larger, rounder stones on the top as a lintel and the multicolor effect was striking.

They rode past the inn, and on the porch of it were a handful of men in leather overlays and thick, dark boots who were sitting with mugs in their fists, clearly interested in them as they went past.  One of them got up off the bench he’d been sitting on and moved to the edge of the porch to lean around the corner and watch them as they continued on.

“I suspect.” Gabrielle said, as she relaxed into Spot’s sturdy walk. “That we will be seeing those scalawags before long, Xena.”

“Ya think?” Xena spotted a low fence at the end of the path they were on, and the view of a brassy dull green pasture past it. “Well, first things first.” She nudged Tanto a bit faster and the stallion agreeably moved into a gentle canter.

At the fence, Tanto didn’t slow down and with a neat collect he jumped over it, landing on the other side into a recently harvested field that still had some thick tufts of grass to offer.  “Careful.” Xena called back. “Got some holes dug here.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes as Spot followed, but the mare landed safely and then they were increasing speed into a gallop, with Tanto leading the way up around the edge of the field under Xena’s guidance.   At the top of the field was a ridge full of foliage and as they came up to it they could see past to the hills beyond, a vast spread of thickly forested land.

It was pretty.  Gabrielle found herself enjoying the ride as they galloped along the ridge, outlined against the clear blue sky.  There was a deep smell of tilled earth around them, and the bright scent of cut grass and the harvest, and a cool but not uncomfortably cold breeze in their faces.

They rode to the very end of the field, a considerable way, with dips and a rolling surface and came to the end boarded with the fence and a thick wood beyond it.   

Xena pulled Tanto to a halt and they stood for a minute under the trees hanging over the fence and looked back the way they’d come, the horses dropping their heads at once to munch the grass. “This is nice.” Xena said, in a somewhat surprised tone.

“I totally get why Herc and Iolaus would want to hang out.” Gabrielle agreed. “There’s a spring there, Xe. I’m going to fill our skins.”  She dismounted and unhooked hers and Xena handed over her own then she went to the fence and climbed over it to where she’d spotted a rocky outcropping with water burbling from it.

Xena was content to remain where she was, looking out over the field and wondering if she was going to see trouble coming across it, or if they would wait for dusk, and the inevitable visit to the inn.  Or would they, knowing they would likely leave the horses in the paddock and walk back down, wait to ambush them?

She pondered that possibility.  Or would they just leave them alone? After all, two women traveling could hardly be that much of a threat to people who didn’t know them.  She idly watched Gabrielle filling the waterskins. Unless they wanted to steal the horses.

Maybe the trading would be done by the time they got back and they could just get back on the boat and leave. Xena tried to think about what the timing of the tides had been.   Did she really want to get involved with a bunch of ruffians who were probably looking for nothing more than an easy place to hang out for the winter?

Gabrielle climbed back over the fence and returned, handing her waterskin up.  Xena took it and secured it to her saddlering then leaned forward and rested her forearms on her saddle as she waited for her partner to remount.

“Another ride? The other way?” Gabrielle asked, as she settled herself. “Then we can swing by the inn and grab lunch.” She winked. “See what trouble we can get into.”

Xena straightened up and smiled. “Sounds good.” She concluded. “Race ya?”

“No fair Xe that damn horse ru.. Xena!!!” 

Tanto was off and bolting into a full gallop, pounding over the ground with Spot chasing after him, Xena’s tall form crouched low and moving with his motion.    

Gabrielle urged Spot to go faster, and the mare was amiable to the request, but she could not match Tanto’s longer strides and she could only try not to lose too much ground as they chased each other across the harvested ground to the far side of the long, furrowed field.

Xena stayed at the top ridge, to avoid the ditches and at the very end where the fence around the field suddenly loomed she aimed the stallion at it and he sailed over it, ending up in the next enclosure which was a field full of some kind of tree.  

That was too full of trunks to keep going full tilt through so she slowed Tanto down and he winded through the trees as he came back around in a circle and headed back to the fence just in time to see Spot leaping over it, and landing with a shake of her head.

Xena had to laugh, since Gabrielle’s eyes were still screwed shut and she had a grimace on her face. “Hey you’re getting better at that.” She complimented her as Tanto strutted over in that direction. “Nice jump.”

One eye opened and looked at her. “Better than me flying off into the river?” Gabrielle asked drolly.  She looked around in the field and side stepped Spot over to one of the trees. “Oh.” She touched a bud on one of the branches. “Are these lemons too?”

“They’re something.” Xena inspected the bud, then leaned closer to it and sniffed it. “Smells nice anyway.” She concluded. “If we see those guys on our way back from here we can tell them to head in this direction.”  She spotted a path through the trees. “Lets go back that way.”

“As long as we don’t have to jump more fences.” Gabrielle was glad enough to guide Spot to the left and they followed Tanto’s dark gray form through the trees, which let off a gentle fragrance as they passed through the branches that brushed their skin.

The field ended thankfully in a gate and as Xena edged Tanto sideways over so she could lean over and open it, Gabrielle could look over her and saw a group of the men from the inn sauntering up the path. “Ah, Xe.”

“I see em.” Xena sidestepped Tanto over again to push the gate open and gestured Gabrielle through. “Go on, I’m going to close this.”

Gabrielle moved through the gate and went a short way towards the path, then pulled Spot to a halt until Xena could join them.   They were between some short, squat bushes and mostly obscured, and she could see the men walking along, with studied casualness.

Xena came up next to her and gave her a slap on the thigh. “Lets go.” She said briefly.  

They dodged their way through the bushes, ducking under some thickly leaved branches to emerge at the side of the path just ahead of the men and turning onto it.

The men stopped and waited, spread across the path in something of a cluster, two of them in the lead. Both had full beards and moustaches and were definitely not farmboys. 

Xena kept Tanto at a sedate walk and shifted her reins to her left hand, and let her right hand relax on her thigh, finger slightly curled.  In her peripheral vision she saw Gabrielle loosen the catches on her staff, and she exhaled in contentment, moving a little forward in her saddle and centering her balance.

Tanto worked his teeth around his bit and waggled his head to either side, then flicked his ears backwards towards her, as though in anticipation.

The man in the lead held a hand up, palm outward. “Hold up there ladies.”

“You know, Gabrielle.” Xena said, in a mild voice. “I’m getting pretty damn tired of being called a lady.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle held back a smile.  Then she looked at the men. “What can we do for you, gentlemen? We’re on our way back to our ship.”  She slowed Spot to a halt when Tanto did.

These men looked like soldiers.  Gabrielle had seen enough of them to know and they had that easy way of holding themselves and the assortment of weapons disposed around their bodies that indicated that they knew what to do with them.

That didn’t particularly worry her.  She had been fighting people who knew what to do with a weapon for some time now and she also knew that if these men knew their craft, they would know that Xena did as well.  Takes one to know one, as it were.  “What can we do for you?” She repeated.

“Where ya from?” The man countered.

“Just west of the Thracian border.”  Xena answered. “Where are you from?”

The man looked up at her. Xena looked back at him with a faint smile. “Your accent sounds like you’re from the north.” She suggested. “Mercenaries?”

Gabrielle saw his face react before he could stop himself.  “Who were you fighting for? Maybe we know them.” She said cheerfully.  “Did they run out of money? I know that happens sometimes. Bummer huh?”

The man took a half step back and then put his thumbs into his weapons belt and tilted his head as he studied them. The rest of his little gang stood back and shuffled their boots, glancing around in the bright sunlight.

Xena hitched herself around in Tanto’s saddle and ended up sitting sideways in it, letting her legs dangle off his side and crossing her boots. “C’mon, spill it. What do you want?” She asked, in a somewhat sterner tone. “We got places to be.”

“How did you know who we were?” The man asked. “We haven’t said anything to the yokels here. We just paid out a room with the last of our pay and we were hoping we’d be able to get a ride out of here.” Now that he was talking he didn’t stop. “We were fighting for Andriat Blackhand, some squabble he had with his neighbors and after we beat them up, he said he was broke and kicked us out.”

“Bummer.” Xena commiserated. “Next time he goes to hire someone that’ll be remembered.” She looked over at Gabrielle. “You should spread that around, on the way home.”

“I’ll do that.” Gabrielle responded promptly.  So you guys are stuck here? That what you’re saying? We’re heading to Herculaneum.. “She chuckled and covered her eyes. “I still can’t get used to that.  Anyway, I doubt Hercules needs mercenaries but we could drop you off there.”

“You could do that?” The man asked, his eyes widening. “I was just going to ask you if needed anyone to do any work for ya, if you know what I mean – for a few dinars so we could move on.” He looked around at his companions. “We could take over that ship if you want.”

Gabrielle was having a very hard time not bursting out into laughter.  She looked down and started sorting Spot’s mane out so that the red strands were on one side and the cream-colored ones were on the other.

Xena folded her hands together, sitting there sideways on her horse.  “I could take over that ship if I wanted.” She said. “I don’t need any help. But if you want to work your way out to the next port it’s fine with me.  Maybe they could use a few handy fellas there, if you know what I mean.”

The bearded speaker managed a crooked grin, a scar on the side of his face giving him a lopsided appearance. He took a step forward and held a hand up to her. “Jofe the Knife, at ya service, lady.”

Xena extended her hand down and clasped his wrist. “Xena of Amphipolis.” She responded, keeping hold of his arm when he went to reel backwards. “Please don’t call me a lady.”  She waited for him to stop trying to escape, then she let him go.  “If you want to go on the ship, get your gear and head down to the dock.” She resettled herself in a more conventional manner on Tanto’s back and picked up her reins.  “Stop laughing.”  She warned Gabrielle.

“I think this whole trip is determined to deny you a real fight, Xe.” Gabrielle waved at the men, who now scrambled out of their way as they moved the horses forward. “You can’t even count that one on the mountain.”

“Or teaching those farmboys.” Xena agreed mournfully. “Where’s a nice little war when you want one?”

“If Ares now shows up you are in big trouble.”


Lunch at the inn turned out to be unexpectedly delightful.  It was a sturdy stone built edifice built into the side of the slope, with a long outdoor patio built out and braced, the underneath used as storage and a quaint bit of a waterfall trickling down the wall to continue on down towards the sea.

Ale was flowing, along with a pungent lemon wine and the ship visitors had drawn the entire town in curiosity so both the inside and outside of the inn were packed, regardless of the midday work being done.

Besans was seated in a corner table on the outside deck, holding court.  He was obviously very well known in the town, and now being fete’d as something of a hero since he’d brought in much desired trade goods, and his ship was going to take away a set of troublesome guests.

Marco sat next to Gabrielle, who had just finished telling a story and was relaxing with a mug of the lemon wine cut with cold water.  “About those mercenaries, Gabrielle..” He said, hesitating slightly.

“What about them?” Gabrielle leaned her elbow on the wooden table next to her.

“Is it dangerous?” Marcos asked. “Having them aboard?” He glanced sideways at Gabrielle, finding her looking back with a faint smile on her lips.

“Not nearly as dangerous as having Xena aboard.” Gabrielle replied, with a note of humor in her voice. “Nah they might come in handy. You never know when you might need some guys with swords, and after all you lost all yours in Costas.”

Marcos didn’t take offense to that, he merely nodded. “That is true, it just seemed so odd, after the town was so worried about these men and then…”

“And then Xena just collected them like river stones. Yeah. I get it.”  Gabrielle leaned back against the railing, looking out over the gap in the cliffs to the sea.  “Honestly I think they’re just looking to get to their next potential job opportunity.  Herculaneum is a much better place for them to find that than here.”

“Yes, I can understand that.”

Gabrielle glanced around the patio, which was splashed and striped with sunlight, a counterpoint to the brisk wind coming in from the sea.  Below them she could see the wagons swirling around the dockyard, as the town happily traded their recently harvested extra for the staples that had come with the ship.

Now the innkeepers were starting to move around the outerdeck, rolling a large pot on a wheeled conveyance around with them with a wire rack full of hammered metal dishes that chimed in the air like music.   She could smell fish, and spices and took a sip of her lemon drink with a sense of distinct pleasure.

The rolling pot came her way first, and she and Marco put down coins for a bowl of the contents, which was a rich and thick seafood soup along with a small loaf of seeded, dark bread.   Gabrielle pulled off a piece of it and nibbled the edge, very pleased with taste.

“Ahh.. it’s been a while since I tasted this.” Marcos had dipped into his soup, spooning up a chunk of white, thick fish. “It’s common in the southern seas.”

Gabrielle took a spoonful of the broth first, and abruptly paused, her eyes widening at the pungent, spicy tang of it. “Oh, Xena’s gonna like this.”  She looked around, spotting her partner’s tall figure standing under a nearby tree, arms folded, talking to three of the mercenaries and a cluster of men from the town.

She held her gaze for a moment, and then Xena looked around and met her eyes.  Gabrielle held her spoon up, and raised her eyebrows, and saw a smile in response, then went back to her conversation.  “So anyway, I wouldn’t worry about those guys. They’re not the grungy kind of mercenaries that go around trashing places. It’s just their job.”

Marco looked up and then, smiled at her with a somewhat sheepish expression. “I will take your word for that Gabrielle. I don’t know enough about mercenaries to be able to classify them.” He went back to his bowl.

Xena was making her way across the crowded deck now and ended up next to Gabrielle peering over her shoulder. “What do we have here?”  She inquired. “The horses have every kid in town feeding them treats. They’re not gonna want to leave.”

Marco smiled. “They mostly use donkeys and burros here, due to the steepness.” He waved behind him vaguely. “Towns along the coast are like that.  They don’t see animals like yours often.”

“We have spicy fish soup, honey.” Gabrielle offered Xena her spoon.  “It’s making the back of my neck prickle, so I’m sure you’ll like it.”

Xena obligingly took the spoon and tasted the contents of the bowl, then she sat down on the square backless seat next to Gabrielle and pulled the bowl over to her. “Mine.” She said. “And there’s octopus in there.”

Gabrielle signaled to the servers who had moved on along the deck and ripped off another piece of the crusty, complex bread. “Looks like you had some good trade down there, Marcos. Did it make up for your losses in Costas?”

“More than, Gabrielle.” Marcos said in a cheerful tone. “Its as if my entire fortunes turned on a dinar the moment I met the two of you in the market.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a brief, knowing look. “Glad to hear it.” Gabrielle said, as the servers came wheeling back over and looked at her in question.  She put another coin down and smiled at their slightly confused expressions. “And can I get another mug of this?” She indicated her drink.

“Of course, lady.” The server took the coin and put a bowl in front of her, and the second went over to the interesting bar setup along the wall, which had partitions that could be folded back to allow service both inside and out.

Besans came over at that point and joined them. “My friends, today has been a very good day.” He announced.  “In addition to our unexpected new crew members..” Here he looked at Xena with a mischievous grin. “I have three townsmen here who will pay passage to go to Herculaneum on some business.”

He slapped the top of the table. “Without a doubt, the Gods are smiling on us!”

“It’s true enough Besans.” Marco was sopping up the remains of his soup with some bread. “I was just saying that myself.” He stood up. “Maikel informed me we are done loading, we can leave with the tide.” He slapped Besans on the arm. “Come, lets see how the cargo’s weighted.”

The two men strode off, heads held high, getting calls and greetings by the townsfolk as they made their way to the edge of the deck and the steps leading down to the road to the docks.

Gabrielle carefully fished a bit of seafood out of her bowl and studiously chewed it, glad avoiding most of the broth kept the spices to something she could handle.  “How much longer a ride is it?”

Xena had settled back against the wall, sipping from the mug that the server had brought her.  “We should be there end of day tomorrow, or the morning after. Depends on the winds.” She concluded.   “That’ll put us there two days before the party.”

“Time enough for some more shopping.”

“For the kids.” Xena agreed. “And maybe something for the rest of our crowd.” She was silent for a moment. “I was just thinking about how we should head home from there. You’ve been okay with sailing so far.”  Her voice lifted a little in question.


“We could go north and up through the mountains.” Xena suggested. “Avoid the road we came on.”

“Mm.” Gabrielle repeated the sound, but this time with an approving tone. “Frankly Xe, I don’t really want to have to deal with Costas, or those other Amazons for that matter. Let’s go find some new trouble to get into.” She spooned up another bit of fish and watched Xena’s profile.

The expression was speculatively thoughtful, one dark fine eyebrow lifted slightly as she considered that possible route. “Not a bad idea.”  She finally said, with a nod. “We’ll hit snow in the hills but it shouldn’t be too bad yet.”

“And we can buy some winter gear in Herc’s town.” Gabrielle concluded. “It sounds like it’s a pretty big place, maybe you can find some of that leatherwork you wanted.”

“Maybe I can.” Xena pushed her bowl aside. “You done taking parts out of that?” She looked pointedly at Gabrielle’s bowl.

Gabrielle nudged the remaining broth in her direction. “I’m going to go find whoever the cook is here and see what spices they’re using.” She got up and gave her partner a pat on the side. “I’ll trade a story for them.”

“My hero.” Xena tipped the bowl to her lips and sipped from it. “Even if you won’t eat it.”

“Dori will.” Gabrielle winked at her, lifting her staff up from its resting spot against the wall and disappearing inside the inn.


The sun was halfway to the horizon by the time they were all back onboard the ship and it was making ready to leave the dock.  

Besans was supervising the lifting of the gangway and the deck now looked quite a bit more crowded with the group of mercenaries, who had taken up a spot near the bow to make their camp and the three men from the town who had joined the two merchants from Costas in a tight, interested circle near the middle of the deck.

Gabrielle was up on the after deck seated with her saddelbags stashing away a few recently acquired items, appreciating the warmth of the westering sun on her back that counteracted the chill of the wind.

She leaned back when she was done, feeling the ship start to shift under her, as they released the ropes holding them to the dock and the sound of the oars belowdeck began to crank and thunk moving them away from the town.

Around the deck sailors were carefully placing oil lamps, as yet unlit, freshly filled and waiting for the eventual sunset for their use.  Gabrielle could smell the oil, traded from the town and it had a bright fragrance of lemon to it she thought was pleasant.

Packed in her bags was a small amphora of the lemon cordial and folded carefully into scraps of parchment, a packet of the dried, ground pepper the inn cook had been perplexed, but happy to hand over to her since it was a very common product of the area, along with a specimen of the dried pepper itself for her inspection.

Even the scent made her blink, sharp and pungent, but she could think of a number of things she could sprinkle it on to surprise and delight her family while saving her own tongue the burn, and she’d traded a story about Aphrodite for it, which had made the whole inn kitchen crew, all women, very happy.

Xena came trotting up the steps to the after deck and crossed over to where she was sitting on a crate.  “Away we go.” She said, as they backed away from the harbor and started to turn the ship, the sailor hauling on the rudder on the deck below them.

“Horses all set?” Gabrielle knew she really didn’t have to ask that. If they hadn’t been Xena wouldn’t have been sitting at ease at her side.

“I think they’d have rather stayed ashore.” Xena kicked her boots out a little. “But yeah, they’re fine.” She stretched out both arms along the rail of the ship as it slowly came around, the richly golden sunlight splashing over them. “I think they like boats as much as you do.”

“Ho ho ho.” Gabrielle chortled.  Sure they do – they’re used to roaming around all over the place back home, with that upper paddock you cut a trail to with all that nice, thick grass and those wild apple trees. I wouldn’t want to be stuffed in a small moving box either.”

“Only for a few more days.” Xena hiked up one boot and circled her knee with both arms, falling silent as they both watched the sun stretching out in layered lines of reds and golds on the western horizon.  The colors were brilliant and the sun itself was turning from yellow to gold to a burnished crimson as it sank.

“Wow.” Gabrielle said after a few minutes of quiet watching. “That’s so pretty.”

The ship came fully around and they were heading north, giving them a great view as the wind picked up and the sails were being raised to take advantage of it.

“Really is.” Xena murmured. “You always get to see more of a sunset at sea, More of the horizon’s in view. But that’s really something else, how red it is.”

“It’s too bad we don’t have the nutball twins with us.  Paladia could sketch it.”  Gabrielle said. “And I think Cait was really annoyed that we wouldn’t take anyone with us.”

Xena smiled. “They’ll live.” She remarked briefly.  “But yeah, that’d make a nice painting.” She agreed, leaning back on the rail as they watched the colors intensify.

Many of the sailors had wandered over to the side of the ship to watch as well, and after a moment, the grill master Dugan climbed up onto the level they were at and strolled over to them. He had on a working apron and tucked into it were a long fork and a pair of tongs. “Evening, ladies.”

He came to stand nearby and folded his hands over his stomach, watching the sunset. “And so Helios drives his chariot down into the sea.” He mused. “Leaving a trail of beauty behind him.”

Gabrielle’s ears pricked up a little. “You don’t hear that name often.” She remarked.

“No, true enough.” Dugan smiled briefly. “These days other gods have risen above him, but my father was a follower and often said he brought more to mankind than any of the rest.” He stuck his thumbs into the apron wrapped around him. “A farmer he was.”

“Makes sense for a farmer.” Xena said. “Sun and rain is what they live by.” She studied the sky. “But that doesn’t really do anything.” She said. “Except give us all something pretty to look at.”

“I have never seen such colors.” Dugan said. “So to me, it’s a gift.”  He gave them a little wave and retreated, wandering down the other steps and strolling slowly along the rail behind the sailors, just watching the sky.

“You know, I’d forgotten about the mythos of Helios.” Gabrielle said, in an almost abashed tone. “When we were talking the other night, remember? About where the sun goes. Of course I’ve heard the story that it’s a chariot that Helios drives across the sky, then floats along the water at night.”


Gabrielle looked at her. “You don’t buy that.”

Xena turned her head and regarded her. “You and I have both sailed far enough in the world to know it’s not true, Gabrielle.” She said, in a placid tone. “Most of the people who live around these parts haven’t.”

Gabrielle absorbed that in silence for a minute. “Well damn.” She finally said. “Of course we have.” Her eyes went to the horizon. “I never really thought about that.”  She looked back at Xena. “Most people haven’t even left the village they were born in.  Why wouldn’t they believe in that story.”

“Plausible enough story to account for it.” Xena kicked her boots out a little more. “Everyone wants to know why things are.”  She mused. “Then you live your life and sometimes you run headlong into things that don’t fit those ideas.”

“Boy that’s true. My mother used to tell us lambs came from a gift of Demeter.” Gabrielle remarked. “That was a shock the first time I saw one born, let me tell you.”

Xena burst out laughing. 

“I mean, I get it, she told us that so she didn’t have to explain sheep mating to really little kids.” Gabrielle chuckled. “But you know now that you say that, I can think of a lot of things people believe because they don’t have any evidence that they’re not true.”

They sat there quietly and watched the sun disappear slowly below the horizon, leaving behind huge streaks of red and gold that stretched up into the sky and followed it equally slowly into the deep blue of twilight.


A low rumble of thunder woke Xena in the pre dawn, and she took a quick breath and smelled the rain on it as she ducked her head out and around the cover over their hammock to look up at the sky.   She could just see the sails outlined against thick, heavy dark clouds and another deep rumble sounded, accompanied by a distant flash of lightning.

“I thought they say red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, Xena.” Gabrielle’s voice came out of the darkness. “What’s up with that? It was red as a pomegranate last night.”

“Beats me.” Xena stretched and got herself ready to roll out of the hammock. “Let me get our cloaks.” She grabbed the ropes that held the hammock up and swung herself out of it, feeling the wind gusting against her as she cleared its shelter.  “Stay there.”

Gabrielle poked her head out and surveyed the surroundings, seeing the ships deck pitch and roll and decided she was very content to stay where she was for the moment.  There were no lamps visible on the deck, they had either been quenched or blown out, and all she could see was vague, gray shadows.

Xena’s head appeared a moment later, and then she pushed Gabrielle’s cloak into the hammock. “I’m going to see what’s going on. Its rocking pretty bad.”  Then she disappeared into the shadows, her boots thumping against the deck audible amongst the creaks of the ropes and the flutter of the sails.

Gabrielle sat upright and swung her legs over the side of the hammock, getting hold of her cloak and it’s supple, waxed surface and getting it around her body, as the protective tarp over her head thrummed in the wind.

Then she pondered her next move, debating on whether she should stand up and go retrieve her boots or stay put.  She stuck her hand out and felt, as yet, no rain so she decided grabbing boots now while it was dry was the best choice.

She slid out of the hammock and felt the chill as her bare feet hit the deck, grabbing the supports as the surface pitched up and down under her and she was nearly thrown sideways. “Oh boy.”  She kept hold of the ropes holding the hammock up and half swung half slid over to where their gear was lashed, grabbing hold of her boots on the upswing and hauling herself backwards as the ship rolled.

A seconds indecision, and then she pulled herself back up into the hammock with the boots on top of her chest and then was able to grab her socks out of the boots and get her footwear on as she swung with the ships motion.

Getting the laces tied, she then rolled back out of the hammock and onto the deck again, still holding onto the ropes as she ducked under them and got her bearings in the darkness.   A step to the right and she was next to their gear, and she slung the saddlebags over her shoulders and got them settled in a comfortable sling.

Now she could hear men shouting and the hatches to the belowdecks banging and somewhere near midship a torch flared, bringing a bit of golden red glare to the shadows as Besan’s voice bellowed to the men to bring down the sails.

The first drops of rain were starting to fall as she got down the steps to the deck from the raised area aft, moving quickly to the rail to keep hold of something as the sailors scurried to the masts and started hauling down the sheets.

Overhead the lightning flared, showing roiling clouds, and with a second flash of lightning Gabrielle spotted Xena’s figure outlined against the sudden silver gray of the sky and she started working her way along the rail towards her.

It still hadn’t quite started raining, there were just random scattered large heavy drops that surprised you with a cold splash mixed with the wind picking up spray from the choppy seas to lift it over the rail in a mist and she was halfway to where Xena was when her partner spotted her and started in her direction.

“Just a storm.” Xena said as they met. “You coulda stayed put.”

“Did you really think I would?” Gabrielle asked, in a mildly curious tone.


Gabrielle nudged her towards the hatches leading down to the lower decks. “Well, here we are Xena. Want to go join the horses, or stand out here in the rain that’s about to start?”

“Yeah, these guys got this.” Xena reversed course and started back along the deck when a man screamed, with that sound of terror that comes involuntarily out of even the boldest.  They both stopped and turned in the direction of the sound and looked across the deck to spot, in another flash of lighting, the silhouette of a large, three headed creature wrapping itself around the bow of the ship.

Gabrielle drew in a short, sharp breath. “Is that a hydra, Xena?”

“Not enough heads.” Xena caught her own breath and started moving faster. “C’mon. They’re probably gonna need some help.”

“Ya think?”


The sea serpent with its three sinuous necks was winding itself around the bow of the ship, making it rock alarmingly and in conjunction with the tossing of the seas was throwing people right and left across the deck no matter how experienced the sailors.

Xena raced across the pitching surface with a bouncy, rocking stride and was drawing her sword from its sheath across her back as she passed the forward mast, now heading for the steps to the forecastle as the leftmost of the heads came up and over the side of the ship with its maw gaping.

Gabrielle chased after her, with less grace and more instability, grabbing hold of ropes and storage boxes to keep her balance while keeping hold of her staff at the same time, reflecting that having to hold your one primary weapon sometimes was a disadvantage especially when it was taller than you were.

She looked ahead of Xena to see the serpent’s eyes on the middle head track to her and the head arched up over the bow and slashed forward just as Xena reached the top of the steps of the forecastle. The leftmost head also turned in that direction and Gabrielle released her hold on a rope and bounded towards it as two sailors dove out of its way and dropped to the deck to roll along it, under the swiping jaw.

Then that same massive head sailed over her back towards Xena and Gabrielle scrambled up the steps and chased after it, catching up with the swirling motion as it reached Xena’s back just as Xena reached the middle head and leaped up in the air, sword flashing in a blare of lightning to block its jaws from closing on one of the sailors frantically trying to haul down a sheet.

Thankful now for her staff, Gabrielle gripped it in both hands and hoped she would stay on her feet as she swung the long wooden pole and the end of it hit the serpent on the head, just behind a round hole in its skull, making a loud whacking noise.

Inches from taking a chunk out of Xena’s shoulder, the head jerked back and then whirled around and came after her, eyes glaring with anger and a faint red tinge as Gabrielle stood her ground and whacked at the animal again, hitting it now on the front of it’s nose with all the strength she could muster.

It opened its mouth in anger and as she smacked it again it grabbed the staff in it’s teeth and started to bite down, but she yanked it sideways and slid the end of the staff out of its grip, then turned around again and put her back to the railing of the forecastle as it whirled to face her, presenting its large, round eyes as a target she thrust the end of the staff at.

Xena ducked under the middle head as it got distracted by the sound of the staff behind her and used that to whirl and get into position under it, crouching then leaping up as the head slammed downwards towards her and bracing both hands around the hilt of her sword she thrust it upwards through the serpent’s lower jaw and cleaved it, the point emerging from the top of its head.

Then she threw herself to the right with a powerful wrench and the crunch of its skull cracking matched the sound of Gabrielle’s staff hitting the left hand head and the right hand head, the last one left intact swirled up from the side of the ship trying to come to the aid of its other bodyparts and was vigorously attacked by four of the mercenaries coming scrambling up the steps with long daggers in their hands.  

Xena just barely slid out of the way as the middle head came crashing down on the deck, spouting blood from its broken skull that pooled on the deck in a gush that she almost slipped in.

Recovering balance, she leaped over the neck and headed to where the right-hand head was trying to grab Gabrielle’s torso, teeth flashing in the blare of lightning and upon reaching them she leaped up into the air and swung her sword over her head and bellowed. “DUCK!”

Gabrielle without hesitation dove for the deck and landed with her staff outstretched and one arm curled over her head in protection as Xena’s sword blade hit the serpent’s long, sinuous neck and cut through it with the force of her swing helped by her forward motion and the sudden lift of the ship in the waves.

The serpent’s head came off its neck and the neck itself slithered backwards and over the side of the bow as the head came tumbling off, thumping across the steps as it bounced right over Gabrielle’s prone body spraying blood in all directions.

Then the weight of the serpents body, bereft of two of its driving brains slid back into the ocean and pulled what remained if it backwards, releasing the ship’s bow to right it’s course as a spray of cold ocean water splashed over the deck.

Xena finished a mid-air tumble and landed next to Gabrielle, holding her sword out with its hammered surface darkly smeared.  “Nice way to wake up.” She dropped to one knee and put her free hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “You okay?”

“I’m just awesome.” Gabrielle got up on her elbows, cradling her staff in them. “But as three headed animals go, I’d prefer Cerberus.” She remarked. “Wow.”

“Yeah me too. He was actually pretty cute.” Xena gave her shoulder a squeeze and then stood up, turning slowly around to regard the weather, and the seas and the dimly seen oncoming dawn.

The sky in the east was now a somber gray and the deck was now full of sailors coming out of hiding and rushing to the rail to look over it at the choppy dark blue green waters.  The wind had dropped and was becoming fitful as the thunder continued rolling overhead.

Xena walked over to the bow railing and waited for the ship to dip down into the next wave, the surface of the ocean coming up within reach as she plunged her blade into it to clean it off.   As she pulled it back out, lightning flashed vividly overhead and caught her in outline, flashing brilliantly off the blade.

She leaned against the rail and carefully cleaned the seawater off the weapon, using her cloak to rub the edges near the hilt to remove any traces of the serpents blood before she returned the sword to her sheath.  She paused to look across the deck, watching the men gather around the middle head of the serpent that had tumbled down off the forecastle and onto the main deck of the ship.

She took a deep breath of the sea air, feeling the rush of the fight slowly subsiding, running over the attack of the animal in her mind as she watched Gabrielle take a seat on one of the storage cabinets while she was examining the surface of her staff.

Unruffled, just wiping off some of the splattered blood from the wood, having dove right into the fight despite the storm and the pitching deck.  She looked up after a minute and met Xena’s eyes, and a brief grin appeared as she shook her head in mock disbelief.

Standard, for their lives.  Xena had to smile back. Just a three headed sea monster trying to capsize the ship, and in truth, not really that dangerous a creature and easily defeated with a sword and a little strategy. But it had impressed the locals, certainly.

The mercenaries were gathered at the bottom of the steps, the other two having joined the four and they were talking excitedly about the serpent, one of them spreading his arms out to the full extent of their length to indicate, Xena supposed, the size of the head they’d been battling.

They looked over at her hopefully when they saw her watching, and Xena lifted one hand and gave them a thumbs up gesture, which got her big grins in response.  “Good job!” She called over. “Ya hit him where it hurts!”

Jofe, who had been the first to start the stabbing, beamed, his teeth visible amongst the darkness of his beard, and he lifted up the channeled dirk he was carrying in one hand to let the rain clean it off, a watery red rivulet running down his knuckles.

Besans climbed up to where she was standing and joined her.  He looked at her for a long time in silence, then he just quietly nodded.

The sailors, Xena noted, after they’d stopped to look at the head of the serpent lying midships were now going about their tasks, but their attention was on her and she looked up at the sky, judging the clouds and listening to the storm around them.

Rain was now falling, but it wasn’t the thick, explosive drops, this was a wind driven mist and to break the uncomfortable silence Xena opened her mouth and stuck her tongue out to catch some of it as it fell cold and sweet into her face.

“Never seen one like that.” Besans finally commented, with a chuckle. “Seen a giant squid, once, scared me half to death, and sea snakes. Never that.” He said. “Have you?”

“Have I.” Xena mused. “No, not exactly like that, but I’ve seen a few monsters in my time.”   She relaxed her shoulders, letting the tension ease out of them. “I guess that one learned there were tasty morsels in ships like these.”

Besans nodded grimly. “Now it’s a tasty morsel itself.” He remarked. “The way of the world.”

“The way of the world.” Xena responded, with a smile. “Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten.”

Gabrielle stood up and came carefully over to join them, as the ship rolled in the surf.  She ended up next to Xena and leaned against the rail, one hand curled around her staff.  “You should have drawn out that fight more, Xe.”

“What? Why?”

“It was too short for me to make a good story about it.”  Gabrielle said. “Bang bang and it’s over.” She turned around and looked over the rail at the stormy sea. “Damn.”

Xena chuckled softly, holding her hands out in the mist of the rain and rubbing the serpents blood off her fingernails. “You’re the one doing the banging. Did you split that staff?”

“No.” Gabrielle displayed the end of the weapon. “That metal band you put on it saved it.” She looked approvingly at the addition. “Good job, hon. I think it even broke a tooth on that.”

“You’re welcome.”

Marcos now joined them, the hood on his waxed cloak firmly up and around his head. “Any damage to the ship, Besans?” He grabbed hold of one of the mast ropes to keep himself steady. “Never seen anything like that in all my life.”

He sounded a touch breathless, but there was a certain look of excitement in his eyes nonetheless.

“Cracked bit of wood there.” Besans pointed. “Where the beast was hanging about it.” He then looked past Marcos to the lower deck. “Better me have the men hoist the head of the thing off the side before that landie decides to try and cook it.”

Marcos looked at the cracked rail, then he stood up on his toes to look at the head, which was lying on the deck surrounded by sailors.  Then he turned around and looked at Xena. “It would have hauled us under.” He said. “Would have pulled us down by the bow, I saw it.”

“Not today.” Xena said, with a faint smile. “We were in no mood to be anything’s breakfast.” She draped her left arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Speaking of breakfast, you got any trail bars in that saddlebag?”

Gabrielle shifted the saddlebag, which was still balanced over her shoulders a little. “No, they’re in the one with the horses.” She answered straightforwardly. “I have no idea in the world why I even picked this one up to go run and fight a sea monster.”

“I’ll go grab some.” Xena said. “Be right back.”  

She strode off, moving with the movement of the vessel, down the steps and purposefully towards the hatch to the lower decks of the ship, aware by the lift of her head of all the eyes following her.

Gabrielle stayed where she was, leaning back against the railing of the bow, appreciating the brisk chill of the air blowing against her face, no matter that it was filled with rain.  She had her cloak hood up and the cloak fastened around her, glad at least that had provided protection when she’d thrown herself face first at the deck.

Besans glanced sidelong at her, as he watched the crew batten the ship down. “You are brave women.” He stated simply.

Gabrielle looked back at him in silence for along moment. “We’re brave people.” She responded. “Body parts really have nothing to do with it.”

“I did not mean insult.” The captain demurred.

“I know.” Gabrielle smiled briefly. “But it’s true. People can be brave, or cowardly, or mean, or wonderful and I’ve seen all of that and it never really comes down to anything but who you are as a person.” She wrapped both hands around her staff. “And a lot of times for whatever reason, people expect more in the bravery and courage from guys than girls which is hilarious since women give birth to children and have to deal with cycles half their lives.”

“Well, now then..” Besans half turned to face her.

“Ah ah ah.” Gabrielle wagged a finger at him. “I know an Amazon regent who gave birth to a centaur.”

Besans jaw shut with a click.

“That’s better.” Gabrielle pushed off from the railing. “Should we go get out of the rain? I think I could put up with being under the deck at least long enough to get a cup of tea.”

The captain gave her a bow and gestured with his right hand towards the steps. “By all means. Does the sea disturb you?”

“Makes me sick as a dog.” Gabrielle cheerfully agreed. “But I’ll live. C’mon.”   She led the way across the forecastle, tugging her cloak hood a little closer as the rain intensified, forming a wash across the deck she was walking through that carried streaks of blood towards the side rails.


Xena could feel the sharpened attention as soon as she got down to the lower deck, the sailors working on securing the cargo pausing to turn and look at her with eyes slightly widened and visible in the dim lamplight as the swinging oil lamps sent shadows flickering everywhere.

She ignored it, striding across the decking to the aft, which was creaking with motion, and where both horses were already at the front of their rope defined stalls ears forward, watching her approach.

They were not agitated, just alert, unaware of the creature that had threatened their lives and glad to see her as she reached the stalls and ducked under the ropes to go to the wooden storage crates in the back of them. “Hey kiddos.”

Tanto turned around and followed her, snuffling at her cloak as she knelt next to the storage and rummaged inside them. “Yeah yeah, hang on.”  She retrieve a packet wrapped in a waxed canvas fabric out and then closed the top of the crate and sat down on it to unwrap the package.

Spot’s nostrils flared and she came over to the ropes between her stall and Tantos, both horses standing with their backs to the deck.

Xena unrolled one of their supply of trail bars, made of nuts and seeds and dried fruits, and broke one in half, offering a piece to each horse, who eagerly nibbled them from her fingers. “There ya go.” She stood up and stuffed the rest of the packet into the inside pocket of her cloak, and eased her way past Tanto’s tall form.

The storm was providing quite a bit of motion to the ship, and she stood at the front of the stalls for a moment feeling that under her feet.  The captain was steering the ship across the waves and it produced a regular up and down motion as the vessel crested each wave and then moved down into the trough between it and the next.

The old sailor came out from a storage locker to one side of the stalls, a thick, worn rope coiled around his neck. “Ah.” He spotted Xena. “There you be.”

“Here I be.” Xena removed one of the trail bars from her pocket and took a bite of it, and both horses came up behind her and looked over her shoulder with interest. “Oh no, you had yours. This one’s mine.”

The sailor settled onto a crate, undisturbed by the motion. He set the end of the rope down on his knee, a braided eye that had come unraveled. “Now we all got a story ourselves to tell.” He looked up at her and smiled a sweet smile. “That was pretty, that was.”

The other men below decks had started a slow, casual migration towards them, moving casks and sidling along the walls of the ship stringing dried fish, ears cocked.

Xena leaned back against the stall ropes and casually crossed her boots at the ankle.

“Taking that head off.” Another sailor had settled nearby, wrapping a long spiked pole with hemp.  “You weren’t scared?” He looked up at her, his face toasted with the oil lamp fire, and his body backlit by the gray light of the overcast morning coming down the hatch. “I was. Nearly pissed my pants seeing that thing come up over the rail.”

“No.” She shook her head and shrugged slightly. “Worried it would take the bow down, yeah, and if it would rip part of the side of the ship off and let in water.” She glanced up to see Gabrielle making her way carefully down the steps into the hold. “Worried Gabrielle wouldn’t want to keep it as a pet.”

“What?” Hearing her name, Gabrielle increased her pace. “What as a pet, that three headed snake?” She ducked through the crowd and came to Xena’s side. “Bad enough our children raise lizards in their bedroom.”

Xena handed her a travel bar. “But afraid of it? No. It’s just an animal.”  She continued. “I think it was young. Wasn’t very experienced.”  She adding. “Looking for an easy meal. Maybe they had ships go down from something like that around here. Anyone hear of that?”

“Haven’t been in these waters much.” The old sailor at her side said. “Didn’t say nothing about that where we stopped yesterday.”

Heavy boots sounded and then two of the three men who had boarded the previous day stepped into the lamplight, with looks of slight apprehension. “What is it you are saying? About the monster?”  The man in front said, a tall, well built older figure with neatly trimmed beared and moustache. “I can affirm to you, no one reported anything to us about that.”

The man shook his head solemnly. “Most the merchants call come from and go back to the south.” He said. “Didn’t come up through these waters, don’t have many who look to call up the coast from where we are.”

Gabrielle used her imagination to convince herself the ship was not moving, and she determinedly unwrapped her trail bar and took a bite of it. “Why is that?” She asked. “Seems like they’d want to trade with a larger city, like Herculaneum.”

The man spread his hands out, his eyes opening wider. “Looking to get our lemons, mostly. They don’t grow north of us. But that’s why we want to go north ourselves, to see what new trade we can make.”

The old sailor glanced up from his work. “Could be they’s scared of the fire mountains.” He said placidly. “Got a big one up the slope from there. I seen it last time I was around, years back.” He studied Xena briefly. “Hadn’t bothered no one for a long while.”

“That’s a place of the gods.” The merchant said, hesitantly. “So it makes sense Hercules is there, doesn’t it? I’m sure he has that all under control.”

There was a brief pause, as all the men looked at Xena. “Friend of yours, isn’t he?” The old sailor said. “Hercules?”

The question was so thick in the air it almost made Gabrielle sneeze. A sideways look at Xena’s twitching jaw muscle prompted her to respond. “He and Iolaus are old friends of ours, yes.” She said, in an ordinary tone of voice. “We’ve traveled together a few times, and they’ve visited us at home.”

She took another bite of her snack, chewing determinedly and swallowing the mildly sweet bar, as she watched the men all nod and just look knowingly at them.  She cleared her throat a little. “Anyway, we’ll be in the area tomorrow so…”

“Aye that we will.” The old sailor said cheerfully. “We’ll see what’s to be seen and bringing our own luck with us.” He winked at both of them then got up and rambled off with his repaired rope, nudging some of the others out of the way and breaking up the uncomfortably intense focus.

The other sailors and the merchants drifted off, leaving the two of them there by the horses.

“Not sure where that was going.” Xena remarked, removing another trail bar from her cloak pocket.

Gabrielle looked affectionately at her. “Oh, Xe.”  She chuckled and then leaned her head on Xena’s shoulder. “Lets go back upstairs before I end up tossing those bars all over the deck here.”  She took a piece of the remainder of hers and handed it over her shoulder to Spot, feeling the tickly whiskers brush her palm as the mare nibbled the treat.

Tanto snorted. Xena sighed and broke off a piece of hers and handed it over, then bumped Gabrielle towards the steps. “Birthday party huh.”

“I told you.”


Their sleeping hammock had been rearranged to better provide shelter and Gabrielle was seated under it as the rain pattered down on it’s waxed surface.  She had her diary resting on her knee and she was wedged between two large crates to keep from being thrown around the deck.

Not really comfortable.  She could feel the mist from the rain hitting her from either side as it impacted the deck and she pulled her cloak hood a bit more snugly around her head as the rain intensity increased.

She braced her elbow against her side and carefully sharpened the tip of her quill.  Not really comfortable, but at least her stomach had settled back down with the brisk wind blowing over her and the view of the horizon available when she looked up and past the mast.

Both seas and skies were gray around them, but as she looked past the bow towards the direction they were traveling in she could see a lightening of the skies.  

On the deck, some of the sailors had rolled up from below a few empty casks, and they were lashed into positions around the rail to catch the rainwater, the captain not losing this opportunity to supplement his fresh water stores.

So.  Gabrielle inscribed on the diary.  Here we are at sea, heading for Herc and Io’s place, and so far the trip hasn’t been too bad.  She paused and regarded that statement, and shook her head a little. In the space of a day, we found out the city of Costas is basically a criminal enterprise, found some guys with a ship that happened to know us, got the ship out of the harbor, escaped from pirates…

Here again she paused. Well, really the pirates from the city chased and found us and then Xe scared them away by threatening to jump on their ship and kick them around.  After that we found a nice little town near the coast and collected some mercenaries and now we’re in a storm after we fought off a sea serpent that tried to drag the ship under the water.

Gabrielle blew gently on the words to dry the ink, a somewhat troublesome process given how wet it was around her.  I felt kind of bad for the sea serpent.  It thought it found a great little snack crossing its territory and found Xena instead, who doesn’t really like sea serpents and has a great big sword and now all the guys on the ship are following her around like those dogs do when we’re at home.

And of course Xena’s all like, ‘C’ mon, it wasn’t even a big sea serpent.’  Gabrielle chuckled to herself, looking up over the diary and across the deck, watching Xena standing near the main mast with its billowing tower of sail in conversation with Besans, with Marcos hovering around and a strategically placed cluster of interested onlookers listening.

Xena had her hair pulled into a clasp at the back of her neck to keep it from blowing around in the wind, and she had her cloak hood down, the shadow of the sail giving her enough shelter and Besans was talking volubly, gesturing with his hands in an emphatic way as she listened.

Between the mainsail and the aft deck where she was seated, the mercenaries were making themselves obvious, ignoring the rain as they earnestly practiced with their weapons while some of the sailors looked on with interest.

Once she had gotten a chance to talk to them, the mercenaries were actually pretty nice guys.  Gabrielle sharpened her quill tip again.  They were really a bunch of friends from a medium size town in the north who just decided hunting and farming was boring and they wanted more of a thrill out of life.

She got that. Probably better than most.  And one of them could even play the sitar and was rumored to have a decent voice if she could believe his colleagues.   The mercenaries came running in to help kill the sea serpent. I’m not really sure Xe needed the help, but she appreciated the effort and the captain thanked them so I think I’ll make sure I add them to the story when I tell it.

She looked up as boots sounded on the steps leading up to the rear deck she was seated on, and saw the brass merchant making his way up, firmly gripping the railing to keep his balance as the ship pitched into the next wave.

Gabrielle put her quill down and waited, as he made his way carefully over to her and paused just outside her little shelter, the wind whipping his cloth cloak and wrapping it around his body. “Hi.” She greeted him amiably.

“Hello.” The merchant responded. “May we speak for a moment? I see you are occupied.”

Gabrielle patted a box under the overhanging hammock. “Sure. I was just taking some notes.”

The merchant ducked under the hammock and perched on the crate. “Have you sailed these waters before?”

“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “This is the first time either of us have been along this coast. Have you?”

The merchant nodded. “Yes, my birthplace is not far from here, about halfway to our destination along a rocky cliffside facing the sea.” He looked off to their right hand side. “We shall pass it, or more to say, we shall pass where it was, as it was destroyed by a landslide many years ago.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle closed her diary and rested her hand on it. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Rains.” The merchant said, briefly. “A flash flood and there was warning but none heeded it. I was out at sea and came back to nothing but rubble.”

An unexpectedly tragic turn to the conversation.  Gabrielle adjusted her expression appropriately. “Was your family there? Flash floods can be horrific, we got caught in one back home a few years ago.”

“My elderly parents, yes.” The man agreed. “But all their children, myself and three brothers, had left and gone out into the world.”

Gabrielle’s vivid imagination immediately presented her with a few horrible mental images. “Oh no.” She murmured. “I am so sorry.” She looked up and studied his face, which was still and quiet, his skin weathered.

He shrugged. “One has to go at some time, Gabrielle.” He smiled briefly. “And fast, without warning, is not the worst of ways.”

“No, it isn’t.” She agreed.

“But I did not come over to bring a sad story to you.” He turned the conversation. “But instead, to ask you about your book.” He looked at the diary. “I have not encountered very many ladies who have the skill of writing in my travels along the coast here.”

Gabrielle looked down at the bound volume, full of mostly empty pages. “Oh.” She went along with the subject change. “This is something I carry with me, so I can write down details about the things we see and have happen while we’re traveling.” She said. “Otherwise I’d never remember all the details.”

“For your tales.”

She nodded. “For that, and just to remember things.” She agreed. “Most of the girls where I come from weren’t taught to read and write either, matter of fact. My parents thought it would make me a better candidate for marriage if I could, so whoever married me didn’t have to pay for the school teacher in the village.”

His head lifted a little in surprise and he cocked his head to one side. “I see.”

“Didn’t really work out for them.” Gabrielle added, with a bit of dark humor in her tone. “Problem with teaching people to read is that then they can read about other places.” She said. “I ended up running off with a bloodthirsty Thracian warlord and all they got out of it was notoriety and some dangerous neighbors.”

He sat in quiet silence for a long moment and absorbed that.

“It worked out for me though.” She concluded. “I never really wanted to be a shepherds wife.”  She extended her boots out and crossed them at the ankle, noting that the rain seemed to be tapering off.  “But now where we live…” She indicated Xena’s tall form. “All the kids get taught to read and write, to get back to your original question.”

“Interesting.” He finally responded. “I came late to it, myself. Our village was very poor and had no teacher. When I came prentice to the brass caster inland, after I proved I could do the work, he taught me letters and figures, you need those to make the instruments I do.” He said. “He told me it was like being invited into the mystery of the work.”

“It’s valuable.”

He nodded. “For me, yes.” He paused and glanced around. “My given name is Daoud. Most here just call me the brassmaker.” He smiled at her. “I enjoy meeting and speaking with people who have lives very different from my own.”

“How did you end up in Costas?” Gabrielle asked. “Were you drawn in like these sailors were?”

He kicked his boots against the crate he was seated on. “Oh, more or less. Looking for new markets as these men were, as all sellers of goods do.  I met up with some carters that were heading in this direction, they said to the best market in the area, and invited me to join them.” He glanced off across the deck. “Once we were in the gates, I learned different. But at least, because of what I make, I had a better place and better chance to be near the ships and my ticket out.”

“Right place right time.” Gabrielle said. “Glad that worked out for you. I think there were probably other people there who would have liked to jump on.”

Daoud turned and looked at her, and a smile appeared on his face. “Yes.” He agreed. “But we locked the upper gates before we came to the ship. We knew you would not take many. I fear we left behind a great many enemies.” He admitted. “But I feel no regrets.”

Gabrielle could easily imagine the crowd rushing down the steps towards the ship. “No.” She said, after a moment. “They all had the same opportunity to do what you did, if they were smart enough to know what was happening.” She glanced up at him. “Did you see us going up to the plateau with Marcos?”

His eyes twinkled. “Not so crafty. I was closing up my shop when Besans came striding by, muttering about his landie boy making a deal with some woman and put two dinars together.”  He said. “I went over to talk to Dugan, and we started packing.”

He took a deep breath of the wet, salt tinged air. “Was a good and lucky choice. And now I’ve finally seen the three headed serpent I’ve heard tales about since I was a boy.  Be glad to have that to tell when we get to shore, and I saw it cut to bits.”

“Xena takes trying to be sunk before breakfast very seriously.” Gabrielle agreed.

“And you as well.” Daoud responded. “Engaging the beast.”

“I take Xena being safe very seriously.” She grinned briefly. “So you’ve heard about that monster? I don’t think the rest of the crew had.”

Daoud pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose. “No, as I say, my homeland was further up to the north, and the stories I heard were from fishermen who docked at the town. The legend had it that the worm was one of the beasts that were emissaries of the fire mountains. They would speak in the night, and set the sky on fire, and then soon after, the worms would issue out and hunt the boats.”

Gabrielle regarded him with deepened interest. “Really.” She said. “Fire mountains – you mean volcanos?”

He nodded. “Inland of the sea here, they are many, and the one above where I was born was its demise. Many thought the people of the town disrespected the gods and brought it on themselves. The fire mountain lit up the sky, and then, instead of worms, the land dissolved under the town and washed it off into the sea.”

“Hm. Does that happen a lot?”

He lifted his hands in a shrug. “Is not once enough to see?  Certainly I have only known that one time. I think though, the folk of that town were devout and worshipped the gods of the sea, and of the land, and sent offerings to the fire but I was not there. My brothers were not there, we do not know how it came to be.”

He stood up and held onto one of the supports as the ship rolled in the waves. “I see there Dugan is looking for me. I best see what trouble he has gotten us into now.” He gave Gabrielle a little wave and then carefully made his way across the elevated deck to the steps leading down to the main level.

Gabrielle stayed where she was, nibbling on the end of her quill, tasting the faint hint of mint on it.  She heard footsteps approaching again and looked up to see Xena climbing up the steps, the wind coming from behind the ship whipping her cloak around wildly.

Her progress across the deck was not impeded by the ships movement, and she walked a steady, unhurried straight path to where Gabrielle was seated and sat down next to her with a swirl of the cloak’s waxed surface.  “He’s skirting the storm. We’ll be there in the morning.”

Gabrielle looked up in reflex. “He’s skirting the storm?”  She asked in a dubious tone.

Xena chuckled. “He is, going west out of the direct route to avoid the worst of it.” She leaned back against the aft wall of the ship. “Brass guy have anything interesting to say?”  She edged over to get more under the hammock and avoid the rain.

“Well.” Gabrielle mused. “He knew about the serpent.” She said. “His birthplace used to be on this coast a bit north.”

“Used to be?”

Gabrielle gave her a sideways look. “Yeah. Some tie in between a nearby volcano and a landslide.”

“What does that have to do with a sea serpent?”

“Town thought the serpents came from the volcano.”

Xena sat up and gave her a perplexed look, lifting both hands up. “Huh?”

Gabrielle just waggled her quill at her and shrugged.

“All right, whatever.” Xena leaned back against the boat. “I’m bored.”  She admitted after a long moments silence as she watched the rain come down on the deck, and the wind flutter the ropes that dangled from the mast. “That’s what happens when you get woken up too early.”

“By having to kill a sea serpent.” Gabrielle acknowledged, as she opened up her diary again. “Why not go fight with the mercenaries? You’ll make their day.”

“I’ll kick their asses.”

“That’s why you’ll make their day.”


“Tell me I’m lying.”


By late afternoon the rain had tapered off, and the ship’s course was now heading northeast back towards the coast and with the clouds parting there was land on the eastern horizon taking on the golden red of the fading sun.

The decks had dried out, and though the wind now had a brisk chill that was much more pleasant than the constant drizzle of rain. 

Gabrielle and Xena were back up on the afterdeck, working steadily to store away all of their gear, in preparation for leaving the ship.

“Well, this is a better end to the day than I expected.” Gabrielle said. “Pretty sunset, anyway.”

“Pretty sunset.” Xena perched against the rail and wiped down her sword blade, tucking her sharpening stone away in her belt pouch. “Sky’s so red.” She glanced at it, watching the almost bloody looking clouds stretching across the western horizon.

“Isn’t that supposed to mean good weather tomorrow?”

“Didn’t work out yesterday.” Xena pointed out. “That was a red sky too and look how the morning started.”

Gabrielle fastened the flap on her carrysack. “Huh.” She said. “So is that just not true?” She asked. “Is that just one of those things people say like dark haired sheep are unlucky?”

Xena considered the question for a minute seriously, her eyes going a little unfocused as she sorted through her various memories of the sun, and being at sea, and the weather.  She gave Gabrielle a sideways look. “Are dark haired sheep unlucky?”

“They’re a pain in the ass to find at night I’ll say that.”

 “Okay so there’s always a thread of truth in all those sayings.” Xena concluded. “Yes, I’ve been at sea, and seen these kind of skies, and had great weather the next day, and I’ve been at sea, and seeing lowering skies tinted red in the morning and knew we were headed into a storm.”


“And then there are days like today.” Xena shrugged, and they stood together for a few minutes quietly, watching the sun disappear behind the far horizon allowing the sky to gently fade from painted colors to twilight blue.

They finished getting everything arranged, then walked down onto the main deck, where Dugan was smugly standing behind a long, heavy crate topped with a large iron pot, and sailors were coming over to stand in line holding their personal wooden bowls of many shapes and conditions.

“Wonder what that is?” Gabrielle had two of their traveling dishes clasped in one hand.

“Wind’s at our back. No idea.”  Xena carefully studied the first couple of sailors, who were holding out their bowls and having something ladled up into them.  There was no negative reaction so they got in line and moved along and Gabrielle separated the two dishes as they came up next to the makeshift counter.

“Ah, our heroes.” Dugan said, with light humor in his tone.  Tis common enough fare, but as good as I could make it.” He dipped his ladle into the pot and poured some contents into their bowls. “No fear, not the creature you offed. Just whatever I could find in the hold to make an everything stew.”

“My favorite kind.” Gabrielle amiably agreed, smelling the rich pungency of the offering.   She picked up two pieces of the hard travel bread and moved off, Xena following her with two mugs full of whatever spice ridden grog had been in the barrel at the end of the counter.

They found a spot near the portside rail and sat down.   Gabrielle put the two bowls down and in the dim golden light of the nearby oil lamp inspected the contents. “Well this is random isn’t it.”

Xena took a sip from the edge of her bowl with an air of stolid courage.  The broth was mildly spicy and thick, with a briny tinge to it and this close she could smell some kind of fish inside.  “It’s not horrible.” She concluded.

“No.” Gabrielle dunked her spoon in and fished up a bit of substance, taking a tentative bite.  She chewed thoughtfully. “Not sure I’d have put dried fruit in a fish soup.”

“I think some of this is fresh.” Xena commented. “I saw them fishing earlier when we were sparring. They pulled something up over the rail.”



Gabrielle half turned and rested her elbow on the rail, abandoning the spoon and resorting to sipping the thick broth as she watched the land to their east slowly draw closer.  As yet it was just a shadow on the horizon, a darker smudge against a clearing, dark sky.

Her thoughts turned to tomorrow, and what they’d find when they finally arrived at Herc and Io’s town, looking forward to seeing their friends but feeling a vague sense of unsettled anticipation, nonetheless.

The seas were still rocking, but far less than they had been, and below her she could hear the steady movement of the oars that aided the sails in propelling them forward.

Soon, she thought they would be able to see the town lights in the distance, on the harbor facing the sea and then they could complete their unexpected diversion and get back on the road to home.  “This trip was kind of pointless wasn’t it Xe?”

Xena’s eyes were visible as amber lit reflections as they turned from watching the sea to her.  “In terms of why we went?” Her lips twitched a little into a smile. “For the Amazons? Yeah.” She admitted. “But being out her spending time with you? Not pointless at all.”

It was hard to describe, even to herself, how that made her feel, just those offhand words so casually and unexpectedly delivered.  And with such truth behind them. “Back at you.” Gabrielle responded. “It’s been so much fun.”  She said. “No matter what crazy shenanigans we get into.”

“No matter what.” Xena held up her cup of grog and they toasted each other, then took sips of the wine laced spice ridden beverage. “Woof.”  She made a tiny face. “That’s ah….”

“Deep.” Gabrielle licked her lips.  “Let me cut it with some water.” She unhooked the waterskin hanging from her belt, and tipped half the mug off into the sea, filling it back up from the skin. “That’s better.”

Xena followed suit and they toasted again. “Here’s to shenanigans.”  She swirled her cup around and took a cautious sip, then settled back against the rail.  “Crazy or not.”


Continued in Part 8